The inspired book The Problem of the Color[blind] grows out of its author's personal experiences as an artist and scholar. Brandi Wilkins Catanese reveals this in her first chapter, relating an episode from her acting class at the University of California in 1994. In working on Twelfth Night, her scene partner (playing Orlando) pledged eternal devotion by saying, "And I swear, by the white hand of Rosalind . . . ." For Catanese, an African American woman, that utterance opened an irreconcilable "tension between comprehension and apprehension" in her relationship to the character she was embodying (9). Over years of work as an actor, director, and educator, Catanese found herself repeatedly confronting "the conflicting impulses of recognition and disavowal that race in performance introduces" (10). In her book, she explores those conflicts with a rigorous critical eye. The Problem of the Color[blind] moves beyond a study of nontraditional casting into "a broader meditation on the integration of black performance into our conversations about the future of race in national culture" (10). It is an engaging and ambitious exploration of the complications surrounding the black body in an American performance culture that aspires toward a postracial sensibility.
Catanese frames her study around two contrasting concepts: "transcendence" and "transgression." She defines "transcendence" as "both the tactic and the goal of contemporary racial politics" that are a function of our society's desires to look beyond and banish from consciousness all concern for racial difference. Nontraditional castings of canonical dramas—like Catanese's own classroom turn as Shakespeare's Rosalind—often aspire toward "transcendence," by asking onlookers to forget (or, at least, to set aside temporarily) the visible disjunction between the play's cultural backdrop and the identities of those who enact it on stage. Catanese is persuasively skeptical of "transcendence" as an "objectionable strategy" that is tantamount to demanding that (nonwhite) people "get over it" with respect to racial difference and, by implication, a difficult history of injustice (21). The more empowering alternative to transcendence, Catanese argues, is "transgression": a strategy of drawing specific attention to and deliberately violating "entrenched patterns of racial discourse" (22) for social commentary. The first chapter defines [End Page 155] and contextualizes the paradigms of "transcendence" and "transgression," drawing on an array of references from American theatre, politics, media, and popular culture to establish its theoretical framework.
From that foundation, Catanese focuses much of her attention on various ways American culture has engaged with transcendence in performance. The Problem of the Color[blind] shines revealing lights on many subjects, including: the vaunted Wilson/Brustein debates on nontraditional casting in the mid-1990s; Denzel Washington's negotiation of Hollywood's entrenched codes governing black sexuality and interracial romance on screen; the influential 2001 Harlem art exhibition, "Freestyle," as a landmark event in the move toward a "postblack" aesthetic; and the implications of Ice Cube's attempted "crossover" move from gangsta rapper to mainstream Hollywood star of film and reality television. In each of these cases, Catanese enriches her analysis with lucid explanations of relevant contemporary and historical contexts. Her cultural criticism reveals that, much as we as a nation might aspire to set down our cultural baggage and view black performers outside of racial paradigms, transcendence remains a fraught project that disguises and subtly perpetuates those same prejudices that it seeks to render obsolete.
Transgression takes center stage most visibly in the book's fourth chapter, a lengthy analysis of Suzan-Lori Parks's play Venus. Starting from Parks's declaration that plays should function simultaneously as "literature, a show, and some sort of historical document" (qtd. in Catanese, 113), Catanese argues that Venus effectively "rejects the compression blackness usually receives in literature, history, and performance [and] offers new possibilities for black signification in performance" (113). This chapter gives rigorous readings of Venus from each of these vantage points—literature, history, and performance—to map what Parks calls a "NEW TERRITORY" for African American performance, one that honors the lived realities of racism but also eschews singular fixation on...